By Susan and Simon Veness...
Last week we visited the home of some of the greatest technology on Earth, at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. This week let’s go low-tech and check out the natural side of the Space Coast. Unknown to most visitors are Merritt Island, Cocoa’s Thousand Islands, and the pristine Banana River. But once you’ve seen these gems, you’ll never forget them.
We have been big fans of Island Boat Lines for several years now, so it was a thrill to hear we were going to spend the morning exploring the Thousand Islands onboard their pontoon boats, with a magnificent blue sky and a blissful light breeze making the journey even more enjoyable. Our group of eleven U.K. journalists and travel agents were hopeful they would see a manatee or two, not realising the intracoastal waterway is among the world’s most diverse eco-systems, and that, here, manatees show up in herds. Only minutes into the cruise we saw our first herd, spotted well before we reached them by the ‘footprint’ they leave on the water’s surface: a large, smooth area amid the tiny rippling waves.
Guests are encouraged to move about the boat as the wildlife appears, and several happy minutes were spent shifting from one side to the other as manatees approached us, raised their snouts, and exhaled before lazily sinking underwater again. The warmth of the water makes this lagoon the perfect place for manatees and dolphins to raise their young, and because it is illegal to harass the wildlife in any way they fearlessly indulge their curiosity by swimming up to and under the boat, offering superb photo opportunities.
Our guide kept up a steady stream of fascinating facts about the waterway, the wildlife, and the locals who make their homes along the canals we traversed, and over the course of our 2 ½ hour tour we saw dozens of manatees and dolphins, countless birds, jellyfish, and even a raccoon scurrying through the mangrove roots. But this is brackish water (part fresh, part saltwater), unsuitable for alligators, so our next stop was the Banana River, 30 minutes north of Cocoa Beach in Titusville.
Hold on to your hats and glasses, this here is the windiest ride in the wilderness!
Midway Airboat Rides boasts a fleet of four comfortable boats, two-way voice activated headsets for communicating with the captain and each other, and a Vietnamese Pot Belly Pig named Pork Chop, who grunted happily when scratched on the back and slumped into a heap for a nap while we set off for some gator spotting. And spot them we did, in astonishing numbers! Huge gators, some posing on the shore with their mouths wide open, some swimming languidly through the marshy grasses. Our boat skimmed along vast open stretches, making a wide, arching curve into a mangrove swamp that was still and cool, with a thrilling sense of creepiness as the sky began to darken with an approaching storm. But far from being frightening, the eeriness only added to the sense of mystery that makes the wilds of Florida so incredibly intriguing.
But our nature tour did not end as we returned to shore. Our driver entered a large cage and emerged with a baby gator we could hold, and nearly all of our fellow journalists took advantage of the opportunity for a special picture. One, however, got a bit more than she bargained for in her picture; watch out…they squirt!
It’s sea turtle nesting season!
That night we returned to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge for one of the most memorable annual events Florida has to offer: turtle nesting season. Nesting begins in early May and runs through the end of October and is highly anticipated by tourists and locals alike, with eco-tours offered through the national park system. We met our guide at the Visitor Information Center, where she gave an educational talk about sea turtles, delivered with so much humour we didn’t notice we were being schooled.
We were then shuttled to another part of the island, where we had been informed a sea turtle had been spotted by the volunteers who monitor the beach each night, and she was making her nest! However, by the time we arrived where the the turtle was nesting, she had returned to the sea. Another half-hour passed before a second turtle was spotted, this one committed to her task. We arrived just after the first of her eggs had dropped, and we spent the next hour or so watching her lay the rest, then fill in the nest and return to the sea. Each group observing nesting is allowed to name the turtle they meet, and our group chose the name Atlantis honouring the debut of the space shuttle that “soars” just a short drive away from the nesting ground.
When she was safely on her way again we returned to her nest and the volunteers selected 4 visitors who were allowed to pound in stakes that would hold a heavy metal mesh over the top of the nest to discourage predators. While the wildlife is generally left to its own devices, sea turtles are endangered and this small measure helps ensure a slightly higher repopulation success rate. The odds are against these little creatures as they scramble from the nest toward the sea, and we left feeling hopeful that this small measure might at least allow them the chance to develop in greater numbers.
Our trek into the natural side of Florida was easily accomplished in one day, with time left over for a paddle along Cocoa Beach. Paired with a day at Kennedy Space Center, it makes an easy-to-reach twin-centre option with your Orlando theme park touring.
Restaurant Recommendation: Family-owned Dixie Crossroads is the must-visit spot for lunch or dinner while in the Cocoa Beach area. The food is Southern style, heavy on the seafood (try the Royal Red Shrimp, in season, and don’t forget a side of grits or corn fritters!), with a selection of burgers, salads, and pasta for landlubbers. Head outside after your meal and feed the fish and turtles in their small pond, and be sure to have your picture taken on the bench flanked by giant costumed shrimp (yes, really!). 1475 Garden Street, Titusville. Check out www.dixiecrossroads.com for coupons.
Favourite Quote of the Week: A little girl and her mother were passing the statue of Atlas at Downtown Disney’s Rainforest Café on their way to the restroom. The little girl stopped, looked shocked, and said, “Mum…you can see his bum!”
If you'd like to admire Florida's inherent lands and explore Florida beyond the theme park gates, Attraction Tickets Direct offers a range of Florida nature experiences, tours and excursions for you to book before you embark on your travels.